Are you suddenly feeling overwhelmed, depressed and worried when you had been responding to the “new pandemic normal” just fine? Many people felt kind of energized and easily able to “keep calm and carry on” during the early months of this crisis, but recently, for quite a few people, this ability has waned. Six months into these “unprecedented times”, there is a neurological reason for this burn-out and part of it has to do with the way your wonderful brain is always working to ensure your survival.
Take the fight-or-flight response, for example. Your amygdala, the temporal lobe of your brain, is always automatically “surveilling” the premises for danger. It’s like a smoke alarm surveying your environment so that you can respond effectively to danger. It is why, without even consciously thinking about it, you swerve like a stunt driver to avoid a collision, or why you can acrobatically throw yourself out of the way to avoid the unexpected appearance of oncoming bicycle in a crosswalk.
The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain that has kept our species from extinction. It is part of our survival instinct. Everyone has experienced that fight-or-flight response to perceived danger at one time or another.
When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, your heart rate, respiration and blood pressure automatically increase. You tremble and your hands get clammy. Your senses are heightened and you are keenly aware of what is going on around you. Adrenaline circulates throughout your body, giving you a surge of energy to respond. All of this is your body’s plan to keep you alive and safe.
But fight or flight is not the only scheme your body and brain have to respond to stress and danger. Ann Mastin, PhD, a child development professor who studies resilience, coined the term “surge capacity.” It is a “complex system of mental and physical adaptive systems.” She documented it as a response that humans typically access for short-term survival in natural disasters and other high-stress situations. It lasts longer than fight-or-flight, but even crises like earthquakes and hurricanes occur over limited time frames and then recede. Recovery can start as soon as the catastrophic events end and people relax somewhat, when they can start to rebuild.
In her excellent Medium article, “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful,” science journalist Tara Haelle discusses Mastin’s work on surge capacity and its limited duration as a coping mechanism. She analyzes her own sudden burn-out – she went from coping amazingly to finding she was having trouble concentrating, getting her work done, and had become exhausted and unmotivated. “I couldn’t make myself do anything — work, housework, exercise, play with the kids,” she notes. She pinpoints depleted surge capacity as the cause and points out that “People can use their surge capacity for acute periods, but when dire circumstances drag on…you have to adopt a different style of coping.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic is different than the kind of crisis that surge capacity is designed to respond to. Although we were told that we could beat COVID-19 if we sheltered-in-place, wore our masks and washed our hands, confusing political and social circumstances have sabotaged a successful, coordinated response to infection in the US. Attempts to manage the pandemic have been fraught with politicization and misinformation. Additionally, our government was very slow to respond to the crisis. Unlike other countries, the U.S. has failed to reduce the infection rate in many areas, so the guidelines have stayed very restrictive for six months. With 6.17 million total COVID-19 cases so far in the US today, it is hard to imagine an end to our “disaster.” It is taking a long time for science to provide an effective treatment and a vaccine for Coronavirus. Our minds have not been able to experience the closure that normally occurs in the aftermath of a typical catastrophic event.
If you are suddenly tired and feeling overwhelmed by managing your children’s virtual education, or hybrid, schedule, shopping for food, attending Zoom meetings and working from home, it is not your fault. You are not alone. When Haelle posted her burn-out symptoms on social media, she found that many others were also suffering from what she called “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick.” She corresponded with fellow sufferers, and from their feedback she created a profile for those most susceptible to surge capacity depletion: high achieving problem solvers who like a routine. This personality type is now out of their element and especially vulnerable to hopelessness and helplessness because they can’t function the way they are used to.
Whatever your personality type, the fact is that we are not built for this kind of long-term stress. When your surge capacity is depleted you need to take steps to refill your resilience bank account. There are some specific steps that you can take to restore your fortitude ad ability to cope.
Dial Down Your Expectations
As Americans, we tend to approach life as a never-ending quest to challenge and improve ourselves. Our self-improvement options are limited now and setting difficult goals during this stressful time can be very draining. Under pandemic restrictions we are deprived of our usual support systems because of physical distancing requirements. We cannot interact the way we used to with friends, family and our community, or access art, sports or religious gatherings that used to inspire and replenish us. If we are too hard on ourselves and set up strict resolutions that are difficult to achieve, it is easy to become discouraged; it depletes us if we can’t meet our goals. We don’t really have the same resources in these times for nurturing and encouragement that we have had in the past. It is ok to listen to your body and mind and consider taking some time off from your self-improvement routines if they start to feel overwhelming. Increase your self-care, your rest. Before COVID, I found that my anxious and depressed client’s lives were often so demanding that they could not even remember the things they used to enjoy doing. Things have slowed down quite a bit during the pandemic for most of us, so get back in touch with those non-productive pleasurable activities you used to like. Listen to music, draw, paint, write, take naps.
Practice Radical Acceptance
Give up the fight against what is. Notice thoughts like: “this isn’t fair”,” I shouldn’t be so upset about this,” or “it shouldn’t be this way”. These thoughts are a kind of denial that block you from accurately identifying what you can still do and finding creative ways to find contentment during the pandemic. We are all grieving for our lost former way of life. It is ok to feel sad or angry about it, but protesting reality is unsustainable. Accept that this is a difficult time, and that we are facing frustrating restrictions that we have to adhere to keep ourselves and our families safe. Accepting reality and processing the accompanying negative emotions opens your mind up to adaptive thoughts. It leads to finding more ways to comfort and support yourself and your loved ones. Acceptance does not mean that you approve of the circumstances of the pandemic or accept defeat, rather it frees you from expending energy in a fight against reality and lets you use that energy to focus on figuring out what you and your loved ones need and how to obtain it.
Reality Test Your Catastrophic Thoughts.
When you have thoughts like “This crisis will never end” or “The ‘new normal’ is completely horrible,” examine those thoughts. Are they realistic? You can do this by yourself or enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member. Is it possible for the pandemic to last forever? That is doubtful. Generate some other more realistic thoughts. Historically, all epidemics have come to an end. Even with the limited medical resources of 1918, the Spanish Flu came to an end. Medical science and the pharmaceutical industry are doing everything they can to find a treatment for COVID and a vaccine. Although the new normal is very difficult, there are some silver linings to it. Families are reconnecting and bonding in valuable ways because of sheltering together. People are being more introspective and defining their values because they are less distracted. Most people are becoming more aware of their interconnectedness and are being more altruistic. Mask-wearing and social distancing are things that the majority of Americans are doing to protect the weaker ones in their communities–the elderly and immuno-compromised. Be skeptical of any extremely negative, depressing thoughts. Don’t believe everything you think.
Build and Reinforce Important Relationships
Make a big effort to stay in contact with friends and set up socially distanced activities. It is not healthy to isolate. Call, FaceTime, o Zoom with friends and family. Check in with your colleagues and relatives; reconnect with the ones you have not seen in a while. Schedule a Netflix watch party or a virtual happy hour. Make plans to meet friends to social distance in parks or at socially distanced outdoor dining. Take an interactive online class or form one. If you are struggling with depression or other mental health issues, join a support group or connect with a therapist or psychiatrist who conducts virtual appointments.
Reaching out to help others is another way of building relationships. Helping others even when you are feeling depleted can improve your mood. Becoming a helper can restore your sense of control and combat feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Volunteer to drop off groceries or check in by phone with the elderly who are living alone. Prepare crafts for children who are bored and have limited resources. Virtually mentor a child or a returning citizen. Counterintuitively, research confirms that acting to make things better for others can make things better for you.
You are hard-wired to prevail in crisis. It is part of everyone’s strong survival instinct. As the pandemic lingers, though, it is important to know that you can overtax your resilience capacity. We must all find or rediscover the activities that fulfill and encourage us.
As you take the steps to nurture yourself, accept reality, scrutinize negative thoughts, and creatively build connections and relationships, you are setting the stage for your resilience account to fill up. As this happens you will find that your balance and motivation gradually return, and your focus and feelings of competence improve. The key is to find your personal strategy to recharge and renew so your innate resilience can return. This takes some time and hard thinking to achieve but the work will be worth it.
Contributed by Lucia Smith, MA, LPC, CCATP, who is the owner of Clear Mind Counseling, located in the Straube Center in Pennington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-902-3271